(CNSNews.com) – President Obama's top diplomat is traveling to Nigeria on Friday for the inauguration of the Muslim former military dictator whose successful presidential election campaign benefited from the efforts of a consultancy founded by President Obama’s strategist David Axelrod.
The White House last week announced that Secretary of State John Kerry would represent Obama at the “inauguration of His Excellency Muhammadu Buhari, President-elect of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.”
By contrast, Obama sent the then-Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Johnnie Carson to the inauguration of outgoing President Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian, in May 2011.
Jonathan’s Muslim predecessor, Umaru Yar’Adua, was sworn in in May 2007 in a ceremony attended by then-Assistant Secretary for African Affairs, Jendayi Frazer.
The secretary of state holds the top post in the State Department (level 1), followed by the deputy secretary (level 1a), undersecretary (1b) and ambassador-at-large (1c). Assistant secretaries (level 2) come next in the hierarchy.
The 72-year-old Buhari, a retired army major-general running for president for the fourth consecutive time, won the election – originally scheduled for February but postponed until March 28 – by around 2.5 million votes.
Buhari has a checkered past, having once pledged support for shari’a (Islamic law) to be implemented across Nigeria. Last February he indicated that he no longer holds that view, saying in a campaign statement that he has “no personal religious agenda” or “any desire or plan to Islamize or Christianize Nigeria.”
After a 1983 military coup, Buhari ruled Nigeria for 19 months, issuing repressive decrees and clamping down on press freedom. He was then toppled in another military coup.
AKPD Message and Media, the Democratic Party-associated firm founded by Axelrod, reportedly advised Buhari’s campaign between December 2013 and March 2014, and again over a three-week period last December.
This will be Kerry’s second visit to Africa’s most populous country and biggest economy since January, when in the run-up to the election he held separate meetings with both candidates.
At the time Kerry issued a warning that anyone who incites violence after the election would be barred from visiting the United States.
Previous Nigerian elections have been marred by violence. Hundreds of people were killed during protests after Jonathan defeated Buhari in 2011, with Christians bearing the brunt.
The March election and aftermath passed calmly, with Jonathan’s quick action in phoning Buhari to congratulate him seen as having preempted any violent response from disappointed supporters.
Early last year Jonathan signed into law a ban on same-sex marriage, drawing criticism from Kerry.
“People everywhere deserve to live in freedom and equality,” Kerry said in a statement. “No one should face violence or discrimination for who they are or who they love.”
During the election campaign, the Jonathan camp accused Buhari of striking a deal with four unnamed Western governments to repeal the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act in return for their backing for his candidacy.
A Buhari election campaign group denied the charge, and said he would not repeal the law.
During his 2015 campaign, Buhari underlined his military background and pledged to defeat Boko Haram, the violent Islamic group whose jihad in the predominantly Muslim north of Nigeria cost more than 60,000 civilian lives in 2014.
The stated goals of Boko Haram, which earlier this year pledged allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), include imposing shari’a across all of Nigeria. The Islamic legal code is currently implemented in 12 of the country’s 36 states.
Muslims account for about 50 percent of Nigeria’s 155 million population, and Christians for about 40 percent.